Ever since I started traveling to the region, I have become a huge fan of Iberian cuisine. I love their confidence with the use of bold flavors and colors, and the way they embrace local favorites with just enough respect to allow them to break some of the rules without taking themselves (and their ingredients) too seriously. The snag is how to conjure up diner curiosity beyond the proverbial paella or typical tapas.
Enter George Mendes, whose hands have tickled the pots and pans at places like Basque maestro Martin Berasategui’s three-star Michelin restaurant in San Sebastian as well as Toqueville in Union Square, and who eventually opened his own restaurant Aldea in the Flatiron district.
The tranquil and alluring slither of a room grows outward and upward as you make your way past the various elements of nature: water, wind, earth, sky etc. that set the tone for a calm and relaxed adventure as the dishes start arriving.
Ask any Lisbonite and you will learn that there are 365 ways to prepare Bacalao (Salted cod). Mendes offers four: with poached egg, in a curried bean stew, in an onion and potato casserole and as Croquetas, which are the size and weight of fried ping-pong balls. Light, fluffy, potato-ey and gone in sixty seconds! The faint saltiness of the West Coast Sea Urchin Toast loses the battle to the surprising but very welcome mustard seed as the dish’s main flavor driver. Similarly the deep-green cucumber broth gives the Big Eye Tuna Crudo a refreshing boost that cuts through the yuzu-olive oil. The Portuguese Baby Squid “a la Plancha” is layered with wonderful flavors and colors, from the black squid ink, to the red strips of smokey Chorizo, to the tender Calamari rings. (But I either missed or failed to notice any ginger butter.)
While the Portuguese Sardines in escabeche (vinegar marinade) didn’t level up to much more than the sum of their parts, the Dayboat Diver Scallops were what it’s all about. Simple, simple preparation with beets for color, porcini’s for texture and a pop of tart from gooseberry halves – a tough dish to beat. The Pastel de Nata (the famously celebrated, age-old pastries from Belém with their crispy shells that give way to freshly baked oven-warm custard, topped with cinnamon and sugar) more than delivered a sublime final act.